Short story collections aren’t really like reading other fiction. They’re not just condensed larger stories…they’re more like artful snapshots of life. I call them snapshots not because they cover such short spans of time, because they don’t – many short stories span many years in just a few pages – but because their focus is so keen on details. I greatly enjoyed this collection of short stories by Rebecca Lee, put together and published this year by Algonquin Books.
Here’s a bit about the seven stories it contains::
The title story, Bobcat, is about a dinner party. Our narrator is a pregnant newlywed professional who is running through the list of her guests in her mind as they prepare the dinner. The group is a bunch of early thirties career focused individuals, or perhaps they seem that way because our narrator is – much of what she has to tell us is about their professional lives. Like so many of us, it is easy for the narrator to judge her company by the things she thinks she knows about them. This story is about confronting what is real VS illusion in relationships. Many times it is easy to not notice things when they’re happening to us, when to everyone else around us, it is perfectly clear.
Next is a story titled The Banks of the Vistula. Narrating is a young bustling girl in her first year of college in the Midwest. Trying to impress one of her teachers right off the bat, she plagiarizes an essay straight from a chapter in a book written long ago. When he confronts her, worried that the claims she made in the essay is how she really feels about the issues, she lies, blatantly and frequently as it snowballs into something she can’t quite understand. There is something going on between her professor and her new friend she observes for us but doesn’t quite understand. It was both frustrating and interesting getting the story through her eyes – and it is the type of story that would be completely different if told through any of the other character’s perspectives, and just as interesting.
Slatland is the next story, about a young girl who is quite depressed for a reason unknown to her. Concerned, her parents take her to visit a psychology professor who is quite eccentric, but helps her in a strange way, to deal with her problems by rising above them. Throughout her life this strategy helps her to see things as they really are in an almost paranormal way. Later, now a grown woman, she has need to visit the professor again, in just as much need as the first time. Although this is in some ways the strangest story of them all, the insecurities of relationships are outlined so perfectly that it becomes quite real.
What started as my favorite story, Min, by the end morphed into something much bigger – something I’m not quite sure I understand fully. A girl meets a boy in college, as you do. He’s a foreigner, from Hong Kong, and when summer comes, he asks her to accompany him back to his country, which is becoming absolutely flooded with immigrants, an issue his father has a part in dealing with. Unbeknownst to her, her job will become being responsible for finding a wife for him, her best friend. This is a story about a woman on an adventure, who is learning about life in many directions at once, first hand. Of all the stories, I think this one seems the least complete, for me.
It’s possible World Party was my least favorite of the bunch. A woman college professor (are you catching a theme here?) is on a committee that is currently deciding on an issue of radical student protesting and the professor proclaimed their ‘leader’. She is a newly single mother of a young kid who is having a World Party at school, her son dressed as a Black Hole. This is the story that seems least ‘deep’ to me, but perhaps I just didn’t grasp it. She is worried about her son, and the qualities he presents both from her and her ex-husband, and how he alienates himself from his contemporaries. She struggles, as all women do at some point, with the possibility of having been asked out by the very man that may be leading these students to their dangerous radical behavior. While none of these stories are very cyclical, this one seems the most random, the most disconnected.
What turned out to be my favorite story of all is Fialta, the only story written in the perspective of a man, an architect student interning at Fialta with a legend of his profession. Although this was perhaps the least ‘artfully’ written (meaning it was the most ‘traditional plot’), I loved the characters and the settings, and it felt very real. The man falls in love with one of the other interns, who turns out to have a ‘thing’ with the legend architect himself, which gets them all into a bit of trouble. This story describes such beautiful landscapes, scenery, and architecture, it’s beautiful to read.
Settlers, the shortest story included by far, brings the book back around to some of the themes introduced in the title story, Bobcat. It follows a 35 year old woman who is feeling the itch to settle down and start a family. Again, it compares this woman to a friend she has who the main character is jealous of – she has a husband, three daughters, and a beautiful house. There is a man the main character loves unrequitedly, we assume. He is like many men, he flirts, he engages, but makes no move to show he wants more; he doesn’t want more. The woman feels she has wasted so much time waiting for this man to finally realize she is what he wants, that she impulsively marries and is impregnated by the wrong man, because she realizes she will always feel the same way about the mysterious non-lover she has known for so many years. I feel like this story is perhaps the most relatable of them all to most any woman alive. Who hasn’t felt unrequited love? Who hasn’t felt that one of their friends had it better than they did (and as it turns out, that wasn’t as perfect as it seemed either)? This was a perfect close to the collection.
Many of these stories, in fact, most of them, were published individually from 1992 – 2010 in various newspapers and magazines. I agree with Caryolyn Parkhust who said (in the dust jacket cover),
An author who understands that the right words can be just as luminous as gold.
I’m so glad I decided to purchase this book so I can revisit these stories again and again, study them, and pull them apart. When you’re reading, you do feel like it’s some kind of masterwork that you’re able to glimpse, and I look forward to more work from this inspired writer.
Thanks for reading,